‘I didn’t know where to look for him’: ICE ships kids across the country to Pacific Northwest jails

August 3, 2019

Last year, a North Carolina 17-year-old called his mom from jail. Victor had been charged with various crimes, including four counts of breaking or entering a motor vehicle. But now the teen, brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a small child, had something else to reckon with.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was taking him away, he told his mom.

Where, he didn’t say. And nobody else told his mom either, she said. “I didn’t know where to look for him.”

She checked an online system for locating people in ICE detention but found only adults listed. “I thought maybe he had been taken to the border,” she said, speaking in Spanish. Perhaps, she thought, he had even fallen prey to kidnappers there.

A month later, she said, she finally got a call from her son and an officer at a juvenile jail clear across the country — in Oregon.

Though Victor by then had been convicted on the breaking or entering charges, his placement there was not part of his sentence, which imposed no new jail time. Instead, it stemmed from a corner of the immigration system that uses a few juvenile jails nationwide — two of them in Oregon and Washington — to hold a small number of kids deemed by ICE, using fairly broad criteria, to be a “public safety or national security threat.”

Victor’s case sheds light on the practice as a legal case plays out in a Washington court over access to information about ICE’s juvenile detainees, and as conditions for children at migrant holding centers at the border generates widespread debate.

Unlike those in border facilities, the kids in local jails have not just arrived in the U.S., but have been living here, often with their parents, in places all across the states. The government seeks to deport them, regardless of whether their parents are also removed.

Usually, kids with homes in the U.S. remain there while going through immigration court proceedings that can take many months.

ICE says it’s necessary to jail some kids, however, because of their “serious criminal histories.”

“It would be irresponsible and potentially dangerous for the agency to allow these individuals to remain out of custody with a guardian,” said an ICE statement.

But immigration lawyers and advocates question the need to send these kids so far from their parents in a little-explained process that can seem arbitrary.

“There’s effectively no oversight,” said MariRuth Petzing, a Portland attorney who has represented a handful of teenage ICE detainees at the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facilities (NORCOR), in The Dalles.

Over the past six years, immigration officers have brought 16 kids to NORCOR, said detention manager Jeff Justesen. Two were there in late July.

ICE has sent nearly twice that number, roughly 30, into detention at the Cowlitz County Youth Services Center, in Longview, since 2013, according to Superior Court administrator Chad Connors. Five of those kids were there as of late July.

Connors and Justesen say ICE won’t allow them to say much more about the kids — a prohibition now being tested in Cowlitz County Superior Court. The county is asking the court for guidance after Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights, filed a series of public records requests.

She got some information last year, with ICE’s OK, including how long the Cowlitz County and Northern Oregon jails were holding kids for the agency — anywhere from 11 hours to 10 months. But the feds balked when, skeptical of whether the kids were really as dangerous as ICE said, she asked for their criminal histories with redacted personal information.

“We have all the records prepped, ready and redacted for release,” said Connors, acknowledging a state law giving universities increased access to records used for public-interest research. Superseding that, according to ICE’s brief to the court, is a federal law forbidding facilities that work with the agency from releasing detainee records.

Certainly, many of ICE’s juvenile detainees have committed crimes. A list of charges against those at NORCOR since 2013 include assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, possession of marijuana, sexual misconduct and cruelty to animals.

Petzing, who works at the nonprofit Immigration Counseling Service, said her cases there typically involved a fight and either the presence of a weapon, usually displayed rather than used, or an accusation of gang affiliation.

The kids have often been convicted and served a sentence before being detained by ICE, she added.

Tacoma lawyer Tim Warden-Hertz said his organization, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, had one client due to be released from jail on the East Coast, with a social worker waiting to work with him, when he was taken by ICE to Cowlitz County.

A proven crime is not necessarily what brings a kid into ICE detention, however. The federal government’s 2001 contract with Cowlitz County says detainees could include those “chargeable” as well as charged, those judged to be escape risks, to have committed a violent act toward themselves, or to have engaged in “disruptive behavior.”

It’s unclear if there’s any systematic way of determining why some kids who fall into these categories are sent to jail while others aren’t. ICE did not respond when asked.

Petzing, speaking for herself and not her organization, said what disturbs her the most is the way kids are separated from their support systems. “Parents,” she said, “are completely shut out.”

Victor, a former client of Petzing, declined to be interviewed, telling his attorney that he wanted to put that part of his life behind him. But he agreed to share court and law enforcement documents in his case on condition his full name not be used. They show he had several charges on his record before being detained by ICE.

In 2017, the teen pushed another boy in the chest, knife in hand, and said “give me back my shirt or you’re going to regret it,” according to a police report. He was found guilty of communicating threats.

The same year, he was convicted of breaking or entering a motor vehicle, a crime he would repeat in 2018.

“I had a troubled life,” he later wrote in a letter to court, admitting his “many infractions.”  He said his dad had left, and his mom struggled to provide for the family with a job at McDonald’s. He worked there too so he could help with bills. And he looked after his siblings, he wrote. But he also surrounded himself with the wrong crowd.

ICE encountered Victor in a North Carolina jail after his arrest in March 2018, according to a report by the agency. Law enforcement officials in various states, including this one until recently, allow immigration officers to access information about people in jail or even interview them there.

Victor was interviewed by a “designated immigration officer,” which is a local official given authority by ICE to help with enforcement. The officer determined Victor came to the U.S. illegally, although the 17-year-old said he had an application pending for a U-Visa, eligible to victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. He also said he had a baby on the way.

“The subject will enter ICE custody upon disposition of his state charges,” read the report, which also said Victor had a 10-minute phone call with his mother that day.

His mom didn’t remember when she heard from Victor that he was being transferred by ICE to another, unnamed facility, but thought it was sometime in the summer. It’s not apparent how much time passed after his call that he was transferred.

Victor was given a suspended sentence on June 25 and arrived at NORCOR three days later.

Justesen said kids at the jail can make calls as soon as they come in. “If the kids choose not to make a call, we let parents know they arrived.” The Cowlitz County juvenile jail has a policy of calling parents themselves after numbers have been verified by ICE, according to Connors.

Petzing, however, said it’s her experience that a period of time goes by before parents hear where their kids are, usually not a month but often a couple days or a week.

“The kid disappears,” she said.

Once at NORCOR, Victor seemed to be making the best of his circumstances.

A 2017 Disability Rights Oregon report described harsh conditions, including isolation and purposeless prohibitions on such things as looking out the window or asking for the time. Since then, “changes were made where deemed necessary and the behavior management plan for the facility was revamped,” according to Justesen.

When Victor eventually talked to his mom, he told her there was more freedom at the Oregon jail than at the North Carolina facility where he previously was held. He even said he felt like he was with family.

NORCOR officials returned the positive feelings. Four, including the detention manager, wrote to immigration court in Portland, where Victor was facing deportation proceedings, to attest to the teen’s positive attitude. Victor was especially kind to one kid who was having trouble socially, playing board games and sitting with him during meals, wrote Justesen.

An immigration judge nevertheless ordered Victor to leave the country by November 2018.

Normally, when the government deports kids without their parents, they go to centers run by either child welfare agencies of the receiving countries, or nongovernmental organizations, according to Lisa Frydman, who manages a team focusing on Central America and Mexico for Kids in Need of Defense.

That apparently wasn’t necessary with Victor. According to his mother, he left NORCOR right around the time of his birthday. That would make him 18, allowing him to head for Mexico as an adult.